Cruising from New Orleans to Key West - Sail Magazine

Cruising from New Orleans to Key West

If there’s a reason that Gulf Coast cruising is not much talked about, I can’t tell you what it is. Three friends and I spent a month this past summer exploring the towns and marine parks of the Gulf shores under sail and found more than a few reasons to talk about it.
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
 The restored Cape Dory 28 cruised from New Orleans to Key West

The restored Cape Dory 28 cruised from New Orleans to Key West

If there’s a reason that Gulf Coast cruising is not much talked about, I can’t tell you what it is. Three friends and I spent a month this past summer exploring the towns and marine parks of the Gulf shores under sail and found more than a few reasons to talk about it.

This trip was my first long sail in many years, and the first I’ve made on my own boat. After two years of hard work and restoration, my Cape Dory 28 was finally ready to sail, and I had no trouble rounding up a crew. We set off from New Orleans in early May, heading to the Florida Keys in a series of offshore jumps.

We planned to hurry through, having judged the northern Gulf coast before we saw it. Judging from the charts, the area appeared monotonous: it lacked the dramatic landscapes of the Atlantic East Coast and the sandy isles of the Caribbean. Then there was the oil. America no longer talks much about history’s worst oil spill, but it is still on the minds of the locals. I was worried about what we might see, and afraid that the coasts would be so peppered with rigs—charted and uncharted, active and abandoned—as to turn navigation into a sort of high-stakes guessing game.

What we found was very different. Even at night the rigs didn’t prove much of a navigational hazard, though there was one apocalyptic morning when we sailed past a rig that crouched over the sea like a giant spider, literally spouting fire into a red dawn. And these waters are teeming with life. We caught tuna and king mackerel and watched pods of dolphins play in our bow wave; sharks swam languid circles around us when we were adrift in a calm, and there were occasional glimpses of timid sea turtles.

The landfalls were another pleasant surprise. Western Florida is particularly beautiful, and completely unlike the rest of the state. Along with the extensive National Parks System, for which the state is famous, a scattering of picturesque small towns present a welcome contrast to the high-rise cityscapes of south Florida.

Our favorite town was Tarpon Springs, a lovely piece of Americana with a living waterfront and a very unusual history. Long before there was Scotch-Brite, natural sponges were harvested from the seafloor, and Tarpon Springs was the largest sponge port in the United States. This industry was almost exclusively the domain of Greek immigrants, who were recruited for their diving skills. Hundreds came to fish for sponges, and in the process they transformed the town.

 The author, navigating

The author, navigating

These days a little commercial sponge fishing remains, but tourism reigns as the main industry. The sponge-fever can get a bit heavy-handed, with sponge boat tours, sponge museums and sponge warehouses, but the history is interesting, and the lovingly restored fishing boats are quite impressive. Scattered throughout town are dozens of excellent Greek restaurants and bakeries, as well as a majestically gilded Greek Orthodox church.

Farther down the coast is Florida’s hidden cruising gem: the Everglades National Park. The park itself isn’t exactly low profile, but many people don’t realize you can sail there. The vast majority of the park is too shallow for keelboats, but there are memorable exceptions.

Just north of Cape Sable, for example, is a well-marked channel into Little Shark River with minimum low-water depths of six feet. This mangrove-lined channel winds upriver for five miles before opening out into Oyster Bay. The bay has no markers and quite a few shoals, but its tangle of mangrove islets makes for great dinghy exploration. These swamps are the ocean’s great fish hatchery, and they are teeming with life. The easy fishing attracts thousands of birds, and the seagrass is home to Florida’s most beloved mammal, the manatee. Although the manatees themselves proved elusive, we saw hawks, herons and dozens of snowy egrets fishing among the mangroves. There was more wildlife and fewer people here than anywhere else I’ve sailed in the United States.

Better still, although Everglades National Park may be the largest protected area on the Gulf coast, it is only one of many. Florida alone has nearly 10 million acres managed for conservation, many of which are in marine parks.

Particularly beautiful, we discovered, are the handful of barrier islands that run along the Gulf coast, which have great anchorages and endless opportunities for exploration. The protection they offer from the open Gulf of Mexico also makes for excellent sailing along the ICW. Whenever the hustle and bustle of the area’s town and the powerboat traffic along the ICW got to be too much, we would pick out a nearby protected area on the chart and escape into some of America’s most impressive natural landscape.

In the fact, despite our original plan to make a straight-line track to our ultimate destination, we found so many arresting vistas in the swamps and islets of the Northern Gulf that we barely made the Keys in time for my crew to get home to their other commitments. Somehow, I don’t think they were disappointed.

calder

Paul Calder just sailed from New Orleans to Maine.

He kicked off his winter with a delivery from

Annapolis to the Caribbean


Photos courtesy of Paul Calder; map by Isa Pagani

Related

180615-01 Lead

A Dramatic Comeback in the Volvo

After winning three of the last four legs in the Volvo Ocean Race (and coming in second in the fourth), Dutch-flagged Brunel is now tied for first overall with Spanish-flagged Mapfre and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng following the completion of Leg 10 from Cardiff, Wales, to ...read more

MFS-5-2018-Propan-SP02

Tohatsu LPG-powered 5hp Propane Motor

Gassing it UpTired of ethanol-induced fuel issues? Say goodbye to gasoline. Japanese outboard maker Tohatsu has introduced an LPG-powered 5hp kicker that hooks up to a propane tank for hours of stress-free running. Available in short-, long- or ultra-long-shaft versions, the ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comThink Deeply When chartering, I am always maddened to be told that the echo sounder is calibrated “to depth under the keel, plus a bit for safety.” Such operators seem to imagine that the instrument’s sole ...read more

180612-01 Landing lead

Painful Sailing in Volvo Leg 10

It’s looking to be a case of feast or famine for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean fleet as it continues the epic struggle that has been Leg 10, with it having been all famine thus far. Painful is the only word to describe the light-air start in Cardiff, Wales, on June 10, as the 11-boat ...read more

01-13_07_180304_JRE_03695_4605

Tips From the Boatyard

Within the Volvo Ocean Race Boatyard sits a communal sail loft which provides service and repairs for all seven teams sailing in the 2017-18 edition of the race. The sail loft employs only five sailmakers who look after 56 sails in each stopover. If you’re thinking, “wow, these ...read more

sailCarwBasicsJuly18

Sail Care for Cruisers

Taking care of your canvas doesn’t just save you money, it’s central to good seamanship  Knowing how to take care of your sails and how to repair them while at sea is an important part of overall seamanship. The last thing any sailor needs is to get caught on a lee shore with ...read more

Ship-container-2048

The Danger of a Collision Offshore

This almost happened to me once. I was sailing singlehanded between Bermuda and St. Martin one fall, and one night happened to be on deck looking around at just the right time. The moon was out, the sky was clear and visibility was good. Still, when I thought I saw a large ...read more

New-MHS-Promo

Multihulls on the Horizon

Fountaine Pajot New 42The French cat powerhouse has been on a roll these last few years, cranking out new models that not only replace their older line but take a step forward in design and user-friendliness. The New 42’s “real” name had not been revealed as we went to press, but ...read more